Art vs moisturiser

I have a semi-regular gig as the Senior Culture Commentator and Wellington Correspondent on The Discourse Weekly Show podcast, hosted by two of my favourite dudes, Morgan and Ben.

The lads gave me an assignment: to review the European Masters exhibition at Te Papa. But here’s my dilemma – and this is a massive secret and you have to promise not to tell anyone, ok – I don’t actually know anything about art.

Well, I know a bit from playing “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego”. The time-travelling, crime solving heroine had to identify her targets partly by figuring out their favourite artist.

But yet despite playing this “edutainment” computer game, it did not edutain me much. I left knowing who Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt were, but I did not know what their paintings looked like.

And it didn’t leave me with a lifetime love for art. I didn’t take any art subjects at school and was surprised to get an A for the design strategies course I took at tech. But then in 2003 I visited the Centre Pompidou and realised that there was much more to art than landscape and portrait paintings. (Yeah, I was 28 when I figured that out.)

Suddenly my horizons expanded to the world of contemporary art. Ha, take that symbolic-fruit-bowl-of-sexual-awakening! Eat it, noble-clasping-handkerchief-lady.

But I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe art. I kind of know what abstract expressionism is (and how it was all a CIA plot) and surrealism and possibly cubism too. And dadaism. But if I have to go into it in deal, I’ll end up sounding like one of those delusional Etsy sellers, throwing in keywords galore in an attempt to art-up their craft creations.

So when visited the European Masters exhibition, I couldn’t do a straight review. I paid my $22.50, went along and looked at the paintings. Sweet. But I was much more intrigued by the exhibition gift shop.

As well as the standard art souvenirs of posters, postcards and books, there were a few unusual items. European Masters-branded hand and body lotion, hand and nail cream, and something called “body silk”. I’m not sure what the connection is between hand cream and Monet.

There were also fridge magnets and keyrings, made from copies of artworks cropped into an arbitrary circle or rectangle shape and given a new purpose. And European Masters-branded sketching pencils, but with the added irony of sketching not being allowed in the gallery itself.

I enjoyed the art, but I’m far more intrigued by the souvenir moisturiser. And this may possibly be a larger manifesto for my perspective on art and/or life in general.

Shed is dead

You know that “art” thing, right? It’s landscape and portrait realist paintings, and anything else isn’t art, ok?

Currently displayed on Te Papa’s outdoor Sculpture Terrace is a piece by Ronnie van Hout called A loss, again


It comprises of two replicas of his father’s old garden shed. He’s taken a mould of the real shed and cast two fibreglass replicas, one painted red, the other yellow.

The yellow shed is filled with all the original contents of the old shed. It’s locked – just as it was when van Hout was a boy – but you can peek through a small hole in the lock and catch glimpses of what’s inside.

The red shed is also locked and empty (or so says the official description).

I visited it recently. While I was there a father and young son came passing through. They observed the two sheds.

Father: That’s not art; it’s rubbish!
Son: It’s meant to be a sculpture. It’s just a garage!
Father: I wouldn’t even use it as a garage. It’s just rubbish. If you had that in your garden, you’d have to pay someone to come and take it away.

So as far as they’re concerned it fails both symbolically and literally – not only is it a failure as art, but it’s not even a good shed. They left the Sculpture Terrace, but after a little while they came back.

The boy wandered around it some more. He tried to open both the sheds and became frustrated that neither of the shed doors opened. He declared:

Son: It would be good if you could get in it. It’s stupid cos you can’t go in it.

This frustrating experience is exactly what van Hout is attempting to convey. Says Te Papa:

Throughout van Hout’s boyhood, the shed was locked and inaccessible. It was only after his father’s death that van Hout was allowed access. As the shed had been a source of fascination for so long, it was a bittersweet moment for him to finally get inside.

So perhaps the little boy should take comfort in the useless, disappointing non-art sheds and instead go and have a look at a Goldie portrait and be thankful that the bittersweet Pandora’s box of the shed can’t be opened.


In 1932, Phar Lap – the greatest racehorse in the entire world, ever, and if you say any differently you’ll get the bash – died.

After his death his heart was removed and donated to the Australian Institute of Anatomy (now the Australian National Museum), his bones were donated to the National Museum of New Zealand (now Te Papa), and his hide was mounted and donated to the Museum of Victoria (now Melbourne Museum).

On display at Te Papa, Wellington, New Zealand: the bones of Phar Lap:


On display at Melbourne Museum, Melbourne, Australia: the hide of Phar Lap:


And on display at National Museum of Australia, Canberra, ACT, Australia: the heart of Phar Lap:


This has gone on for too long! Why should the remains of this mighty horse sit unused and gathering dust in museums? It’s time for the world to get with it because it’s the new millennium, man.

The remains of Phar Lap will be reunited by any means necessary. Using space age technology and the latest scientific advances, including recent progress in the fields of genetics, cybertronics, cryogenics, voodoo and organ transplanting, Phar Lap shall be resurrected into the mighty PharLapotron2000.

Part horse, part machine, all Melbourne Cup-winning speedster.